Important Things for U.S./Western Belly Dancers to Keep in Mind

Important Things for U.S./Western Belly Dancers to Keep in Mind February 6, 2021

Discussions about cultural appropriation have always loomed large in belly dance, especially its fusion genres. Here, I detail some important insights from workshops I recently took with North African dancers.

Image of a walkway up to a door, all painted blue, with hanging plants.
Photo of Chefchaouen, a city in Morocco. In public domain, from Unsplash, taken by Kyriacos Georgiou. I chose this because it’s a beautiful picture and I’ve visited this city, but still need to do my homework and learn more about its history (much like with belly dance).

There have been many downsides to the past year, which is putting it mildly. But on the positive side of things, more classes and events have been put online, thus connecting people globally who share interests, hobbies, and passions. This has been good for the belly dance world in many ways (yay, I can take classes with people who would normally be geographically inaccessible to me!) but especially because dancers from the art form’s originating countries can reach more Western audiences than ever before.

I recently took 2 wonderful workshops of that sort, which I shall not summarize here (in part because some of the material shared was personal and vulnerable, and in part because I’m urging you to study with and support these dancers yourself if you’re interested in the topic). What I will share are some important take-home points, especially aimed at Western dancers like myself, that add another angle to the discussion of cultural appropriation. There were some ideas in the workshop that really clicked for me, crystallizing issues that I’d thought about for decades but never really had a handle on. And further, since I do a little academic research and teaching on the Middle East, what I learned in these workshops put a human face on the topics in textbooks, which I think is incredibly important.

First, though, a brief positionality statement: I am born and raised in the U.S., of Danish, Finnish, and East European ancestry (with a little mystery element due to adoption in my family history). My family is also Jewish, though more secular, so we benefit from white-passing privilege and only occasionally fear the violence of anti-Semitism. I mostly live in urban areas and benefit from straight-passing privilege though I’m not heterosexual. I am cisgender, which confers yet more privilege. So I wanted to be very clear that I’m writing from a largely privileged position, and that I’m trying to use my privilege to address people who might look and act a lot like me, people who probably care about social justice issues but may not know where to start learning. I’m speaking to fellow belly dancers who are interested in learning more about where the dance form we love comes from, and what we can start to do about some of the issues regarding cultural appropriation therein. I’m not trying to speak for anyone when I say “we” to refer to mostly-white or close-enough-to-white U.S. belly dancers, but rather, am speaking to an imagined audience of Western belly dancers who are considering these issues and wanting to learn more.

The first workshop I took was with Moroccan dancer Raïssa Leï of Troupe Kif-Kif Bledi based in Paris, titled “Amazigh Tribal Culture’s influence in USA fusion dances: reality or Orientalism?” The second workshop was with Amel Tafsout, an Algerian dancer who now resides in the U.S. and the topic was “Cultural Concepts for Fusion Dancers.” Both were very well done, both informative and eye-opening…and you should study with these dancers if you can! They have classes and workshops listed on their websites.

So, here are my tips for U.S./North American/Western dancers who are learning more and thinking more about the origins of the dance forms we study:

  1. Learn more history of MENA regions (the Middle East and North Africa). Yes, even if you’re fairly well-informed, learn more. For instance, my experience teaching university classes about the region has been that a lot of Americans have no clue who the Berbers are…or furthermore, that the term “Berber” is considered a slur, drawn as it was from the ancient Greek word barbaros aka barbarian, someone who didn’t speak their language. The accurate term is Amazigh, and they have a long and rich history. If this info is new to you, great, you have a starting point for your own research! Do try to prioritize sources written by Amazigh people, not simply about them, which leads me to my next point.
  2. Learn more about colonialism and Orientalism. In some MENA nations like Algeria, the European colonizers were there for over a century. In certain celebrated (in the West) images of Middle Eastern and North African people, what we’re seeing are not authentic representations of daily life but propaganda meant to justify colonialist and imperialist practices. Fellow U.S. citizens, this should bring to mind the depictions of enslaved Black people in our history: racist stereotypes that portrayed them as happier that way or needing the civilizing influence. If this is an uncomfortable topic, good. There are similar mechanisms of control working insidiously through art in other countries’ pasts as well.
  3. Consider the fact that colonialism and Orientalism are not merely geopolitical forces from the past, but are still exerting an influence today and actively harming people. Some of the presenters spoke of family history, not actually that far in the past, wherein family members or neighbors were hurt or killed by colonizers. Some people in MENA regions live in poverty, not because of anything they did wrong as U.S. neoliberal capitalists like to believe is the cause of poverty, but because whole nations came and extracted resources and reshaped their society to their detriment.
  4. Consider that some of the MENA artistic practices, from costuming to dance movements, that we are interested in (and perhaps have already borrowed/appropriated) are not just random objects floating around their culture, but are deeply meaningful and personal to people raised in MENA cultures. Some of the costuming has a history, a lineage, a meaning. It might connect a person to their grandmother, their heritage, their ethnicity. So when a random Western person picks it up and dons it as costume attire for a performance, that might resonate badly.

I’m ending my list here, again because I’m encouraging you to go directly to the MENA people offering education on this topic, and to expand upon a metaphor that might be useful.

Let’s say you’re a U.S. person who shops at Target sometimes. If a foreigner came in, bought some stuff off the racks, and turned it into a dance costume back home, you probably would not be offended by this, right? It’s just random mass-produced stuff from Target, that is technically American, but whatever, it’s just stuff from Target. It probably does not represent your identity in any deeply meaningful way.

If instead, however, a foreigner came to your neighborhood and took something deeply personal from you – an item from your place of worship perhaps, or a family heirloom – and took it outside of its source context and transformed it into something different that was divorced from your way of life and also possibly went against your values…that might rub you the wrong way. To make the metaphor a bit more obviously about colonialism, imagine that the foreigner also did every eye-rollingly-xenophobic thing that U.S. conservatives claim immigrants are doing: taking over the country, stealing your job, changing your way of life, etc. It adds another layer of insult to have stuff you care about taken and recontextualized by people who are also powerfully dominant over you, because it removes the possibility of equity, of equal exchange and consent.

Like many Western belly dancers, I’m still learning. I do intend to keep taking classes with Raïssa and Amel as a starting point, though, and I’d encourage my peers to think of at least one thing you can do to continue to educate yourself…not just taking another dance class for fun, but digging deep into some of the facets I’ve named here…read a book, watch The Battle of Algiers, do some homework on regional history!

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